Wimbas and Elluminates and Blackboards, Oh My!

July 7, 2010

Today Blackboard announced a new division, Blackboard Collaborate, which is the destination of two new acquisitions with familiar names:  Wimba and Elluminate.

From the official Blackboard Collaborate website:  “Today, we’ve announced that Elluminate, Wimba, and Blackboard will join forces to bring together the leading technology products for synchronous learning and collaboration – and the minds that created them – in what we hope will be a major step forward to pursue new innovation.”  On that site are links to the email sent out to Blackboard clients, as well as oodles of additional information on the fact of the existence of Blackboard Collaborate.  The site mentions “Hear more at BbWorld”, which should be nice as I’ll be spending next week attending the BbWorld conference.  (Feel free to comment this post with any Blackboard Collaborate-related questions you’d like to have answered!)

Although things are still shaking out on Twitter, it looks like the hashtag to watch for on this topic is #BbCollab.

At any rate, there will be many questions to ask about this conglomeration.  One specific concern that seems ignored by all the current information is the role of the Wimba Voice Tools (which is not a synchronous communication tool, and doesn’t fit the “live chat” motif of the LiveClassroom and Elluminate Live! tools) in this bold new future.  I’ll be sure and post more about it here, as I discover the answers at BbWorld!

Cry ‘Havoc’

May 27, 2010

Cry ‘Havoc” and let slip the courses of Summer!

A new semester is upon us, at least those of us who are working over the Summer term.  At this moment there are 830 courses in Palomar’s Summer 2010 term, and many of those will have Blackboard components.  Here are some things to think about, when getting a Blackboard course ready for this new term:

The shells for Summer 2010 courses have been around for about two months now, in accordance with our typical course lifecycle rule of creating the course shell 90 days prior to the start of the semester.  Some faculty have already transferred their materials into those new course shells, but many have not yet.

If you have material in a previous course that you want to also have in the new course, you have two options:  the Copy Course tool, or to do a Course Export and then a Course Import.  There are pros and cons to each technique.

The Copy Course tool has to be initiated from the course with the content, typically this is the older course.  You would tell the Copy Course tool which of your courses is the destination, and check the boxes for what you want to copy over.  However, if you try to copy the Settings for your course (which includes the style of course menu and banner in the Announcements area) you may receive an error.

If you opt for an Export and Import, you would first go into the older course and use the Course Export tool to create an export file, then save the file onto your computer.  You would next go into the new, empty course, and use the Import Package tool to pull the contents of your export file into the new course.  However, if your course contains more than 250 Mb of data, you will be unable to import the file contents.

Regardless of which method, or neither, that you use for porting over materials, there are a couple other things to be sure to do in your new course site.  Particularly, post an Announcement to start off the semester right.  (And, please, make it a new announcement rather than doing a Modify of an old one.  Announcements have the original date posted on them, and it really looks bad to see a June 2010 class start with a January 2006 post.)  Also, of course, none of your students will be able to get into the course site until you have manually made it available to them.

In the Control Panel, under Settings, is the Course Availability control.  It’s a simple Yes/No radio button control, but until and unless an instructor switches things from the default “No” position, students are unable to see any of the contents of the course site.  Some faculty make their course sites available to students well in advance of the start of semester, and use Blackboard as a tool to prepare students to show up at the first class session actually ready to work; others will wait until right at, or even after, the start of the semester before making the course available.  Whichever way you choose, just remember to make the course available before telling your students to go there – our tech support phone rings quite a lot when that step is forgotten.

So, there you have it.  Summer is here, and if you’re not enjoying a nice vacation it is time to be sure your Blackboard course is ready!

Walking the Campus

May 26, 2010

Today I took a walk around the San Marcos campus; this is fairly unusual for me, as I don’t get out of the office much.  Few people were around, as it’s just after the end of an academic year.  I suspect the staff on campus outnumbered the students, although I was asked for directions from one student during my wandering.

I walked past many classrooms, the Student Union, and – of course – the construction going on nearly smack in the middle of campus.  The shells of two buildings were crawling with construction workers, all busily accomplishing things that no one will notice later unless they don’t do their jobs right.

The whole campus put me in mind of how Blackboard has been implemented at Palomar:  Much of the campus is the same now as it was when I first came to Palomar years ago, and the old familiar brickwork that I’m used to is even being added to the new construction to keep a similar look and feel.  However, unlike when I first started here, there are now numerous building with elevator shafts; there was a time when only the LL building had elevators.  On an invisible level, there is wireless Internet access across a good bit of campus now, as well as wired network access in pretty much every room.  When I came on-board here the computer lab in the Library had four computers with modems for dial-up Internet service.  As much as things have stayed the same on campus, they’ve really changed, too.

Blackboard was first introduced on campus over a decade ago, and comparing what it looked like back then with what it is now, there are a lot of similarities still.  The Control Panel is nearly unchanged in appearance, even if the functions have shifted a bit; some courses use the buttons styles and Content Area names that were standard (required, actually) back a dozen years ago; there are even a few syllabi that list the old address for our Blackboard system that hasn’t worked since mid-2005.  But like the changes to campus buildings, some new construction on the Blackboard front will change the way courses can be conducted online.  With the advent of the new version of Blackboard which will be in effect starting Spring 2011, things like the Control Panel screen and the button-based course menu are going away.  The Digital Dropbox tool (which I’ve railed against for several years now) will be gone.  And it’s entirely possible that students and faculty will be using the Blackboard system without real computers.

Although Palomar isn’t going to change the version of Blackboard we use until the Spring 2011 term, we are enabling the Blackboard Mobile Learn tool in mid-June, so that users may begin reading and posting to Blackboard courses using iPads, iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Android devices.  (This makes me a bit sad, as I’m a Windows Mobile user and am left out in the cold with this app, at least for the moment.)

I guess, if there’s any moral to this rambling post, it’s this:  Change is coming to Palomar’s Blackboard system; if I do my job properly in constructing the new system, things will go smoothly; but even with all these changes, many things will stay the same, work the same, and the service you should expect out of us should only get better.

Reliability Wins!

April 29, 2010

A month ago I asked for feedback from faculty at Palomar as to their preference for less scheduled system outages or less liklihood of system failures… and got back only two responses.  So, with 100% of responders in favor of more frequent scheduled system outages, our planned outage schedule has changed.

Instead of Reboot Wednesday coming on the first Wednesday of every month, Reboot Wednesday is now every Wednesday!  At or around 6 AM each Wednesday morning, the Palomar Blackboard system will be restarted.  This process may around an hour, although we will obviously take all steps we can to minimize the downtime.

Reliability vs. Uptime

March 31, 2010

I’ve been doing some prep-work for our new Blackboard Learn environment that will be launched here at Palomar for Spring 2011 (knock wood).  Part of that is system documentation, and there’s a massive amount of procedural data that is included along with information like serial numbers and IP addresses.  Working through the operations workbook for our existing Blackboard 8 system I looked at some of our times at which we consider it acceptible to have the system down for maintenance:

There are daily and weekly windows when the system can be routinely backed up, where sluggish response times are acceptable. A short (up to an hour) window of system down-time is acceptable on the “Reboot Wednesday” times between 6 and 7 a.m. on the first Wednesday of each month. However, the only time when extended system down-time is acceptable would be during the annual windows.

Daily: 2 a.m. to 7 a.m.

Weekly: Saturday, 7 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Monthly: First Wednesday, 6 a.m. to  7 a.m.

Annually: The first full week in January, also any time window between the end of the Summer term and beginning of Fall.

Generally speaking we don’t use the Daily time windows, or Weekly ones, but we do try to restart all the servers on Reboot Wednesdays.  (This deals with several possible technical problems that may bring the system down unexpectedly.  If it didn’t help things, believe me, we wouldn’t do it.)  The support line and ticketing system seldom see any activity during these times, which leads me to believe that few people are impacted by those downtimes.

Whenever we do upgrades and significant maintenance to the Blackboard environment between semesters, we do receive quite a number of calls… but there really isn’t any way around that, sadly.

Obviously there are other times when the system may seize up, and it’s inaccessible to users.  We try to get things running again as quickly as possible, of course, but that sort of thing isn’t what we schedule for.  It is possible that if we do schedule more frequent maintenance windows, akin to what we do on Reboot Wednesdays, that we might see fewer or no other system seizures, though.

The reason I’m sharing all this is that I’m interested how the plans we have for Palomar measure up.  So, for Palomar faculty, please comment on this post and let me know how you feel about the idea of having more frequent, planned, system outages.  For non-Palomar faculty, please comment about how this sort of maintenance schedule measures up against what you’re accustomed to at your institutions.  I’d really appreciate hearing what everyone thinks on this topic!

Big Brother is Watching

March 5, 2010

Sometimes I look through the statistics for this blog, to see what people are looking at (not much) and any data on how folks got here.  It can be amusing to see the search results that lead people here, but one I saw today I just have to comment on.  The search term was “can professors see if students have logged in”…


Dear students, if you are required to log in to a system, someone somewhere on the system is logging it, guaranteed.  In fact, the instructor has two related places where they can see the last day and time you accessed the Blackboard course:  the Performance Dashboard and the Grade Center.  So if your professor tells you that she’ll be docking points if you don’t check the course each week, she actually can tell, easily.

This blog may be “Blackboard for Faculty”, but I’m not above giving students the heads up: Big Brother is watching you.  Do your work.

Looking to the Future… Courses

March 5, 2010

Today I received a query from two faculty, who wanted to know how best to transfer materials from one course to another, with an eye towards setting things up for Fall 2010.  (Naturally I told them to do a Course Export from one, and an Import Package in the other course.)  However, it reminded me that some faculty might be wondering when the next semester Blackboard courses will be ready.

The Summer 2010 courses will be created on the morning of Friday, March 19th.  (This, of course, is right around the corner…  be ready!)  The Fall 2010 courses will be created on the morning of Friday, May 21st – right at the end of the Spring 2010 final’s week, and Commencement Day.  This is in keeping with part of our traditional course lifecycle pattern, to create courses 90 days before the semester they’re a part of.

Blackboard: A Class Act

February 11, 2010

This contribution is actually a repost of material from last June, where it was originally a contribution to the ATRC podcast for my segment called “Blackboard Feature of the Week”.  The fact that eight months later I can still remember some of the details from this segment lead me to believe that it might be worth a revisit…  plus, it’s a long weekend so I ran out of week to record something.

Rather than dwell on specific tools in Blackboard, this time I’d like to draw comparisons between several of the options in Blackboard and actual in-classroom functions. If you’re struggling to figure out what Blackboard can do for you, perhaps this will help.

In class it’s useful to get a feel for which students are attending regularly. Most of the time this is done anecdotally by recognizing the students; in Blackboard you can stop by the Performance Dashboard and easily see the last time a student has accessed the course site.

In the classroom, if something out of the ordinary is about to happen, or if something that’s been on the schedule for a while is about to be due, you might write a note on the chalkboard. With the truly important things, you may even want to “DNE” it, so other classes do not erase it. Clearly this is the Announcement tool in Blackboard, even down to the Make Permanent function to “DNE” your information.

The most obvious comparison between Blackboard and classroom functions is with handouts. If you would have material photocopied and passed out in class, you could have it posted as an item in Blackboard. A slightly overlooked option is how Blackboard items also replicate demonstration objects that you might bring into the classroom. If you want your students to see an Asiatic mask, or a monkey skull, or a topographic map of North America, these things could also be displayed in Blackboard. Possibly shooting a digital picture of the item would work, but there are more freely available resources of complexity available online than you might think; perhaps someone has a 3-D model of that monkey skull, probably some governmental department has the maps you need available. If you’re not sure how to get started finding such resources, that’s a pretty legitimate reason to call on Academic Technology for help.

If you do objective tests in class, you likely have your students use a Scantron. If you just can’t limit yourself to “pick A-E for each question” testing, you may have to manually grade objective tests by hand, which is never a fun exercise. Blackboard’s testing module excels at automatically and immediately scoring objective test questions, and may have more question choices than you’d ever believe. Up to twenty possible answers per multiple choice question, matching, ordering, multiple answer, fill in the blank, and even “Where’s Waldo” style Hotspot questions where the student answers by clicking a specific spot on an image are all easily set up in a Blackboard test.

If you ever use blue books, you may want to try instead having students type up their work and submit it via a Blackboard assignment. Imagine never needing to decipher student penmanship again… And if your concern is over limiting the time in which the students are working, just have the papers typed up in a monitored environment, either by bringing the whole class into a computer lab for that class session, or by having laptops rolled out to your classroom for students to use during the class session. Of course a fully online class would just want to assume all writing assignments are open book anyway, but an on-campus class would not need to.

If your students are ever invited to talk about class material during class sessions, then using the Blackboard Discussion Board could be a good idea. Just set up a forum, possibly seed it with some questions, then tell the students to “talk amongst yourselves.” Just because students post to the forum doesn’t make it uncontrolled; there are options to have moderated discussions, and you could even allow some trusted students to moderate in your place. If you just want to facilitate student discussion without making it a normal part of class, just set up a forum and let students know they can post there for any extra things they wish to discuss.

Do you show PowerPoint Presentations in the classroom? Do you lecture? Likely you do, and Blackboard has a variety of ways to make this material available to students. Use the Elluminate tool to have a live presentation online with your students, and record that so the student who missed can at least see what went on. Or, record a solo session, where you run through your presentation similar to what you might do in a lecture hall, then let the students watch that recording and post questions to a discussion board. Even if you already have all your material available in a written format, you could still make little audio snippets using the Wimba Voice Tools to accompany the written material, verbally drawing student attention to the most vital material or correcting the common misperceptions that your experience in the classroom tells you at least someone will have.

With the tools in Blackboard it is possible to replicate many of the features of a classroom environment over the Internet. However, it is even more possible to closely tie Blackboard features into an on-campus class, and offer a richness to the flow of a semester that could help your students to succeed. If there’s something you are doing in the classroom, and you’re interested in seeing if you can develop an online aid or equivalent, give us in Academic Technology a call (onlineclasses@palomar.edu or X2862) and we’ll see if we can work something out together.

Blackboard, Publisher Content, and the Future

February 10, 2010

Ray Henderson, President of the Blackboard Learn division at Blackboard, blogged today about progress that Blackboard is making on backing up past claims about embracing openness in their product.  You can read his full blog post over on his blog, titled “Blackboard’s Open Standards Commitments: Progress Made“.  It makes for some interesting reading, for someone who understands some of the tech-ese and history of getting publisher content into Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard.  However, I’d like to try and offer a “what does that mean for us?” perspective for faculty using Blackboard.

The “Common Cartridge” standard that Blackboard is planning support for is a set of rules that content providers such as textbook publishers can use when creating their content.  Following those standards should make it easy for a content provider to make just one set of content, but have it be available in multiple systems such as Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai, whatever flavor of system that supports that Common Cartridge standard.

One thing this should mean for faculty is that, when trying to get content from your publisher rep, it should be far more difficult for the rep to provide you with the wrong stuff.  It also means that, should you teach at multiple institutions using different systems, you’ll have a good chance of using just one content source that can be imported into your courses at each institution.  This is what, in the tech support business, we refer to as “A Good Thing”.

There are certainly other implications to Blackboard becoming involved in, and planning support for, the Common Cartridge standard, but I don’t want to muddy the waters here.  The take-away point for faculty is:  This should make moving content into your courses better.

What’s in a name?

January 29, 2010

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Juliet: Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

What’s in a name?  Well, when it comes to figuring out how to use Blackboard, quite a bit.  Without the proper vocabulary in mind, using written documentation (even the custom write-ups put out by Academic Technology, let along the default Blackboard User’s Manual) is nearly impossible.  Without the exact names of the tools and functions in Blackboard, communicating with the support techs can be highly frustrating bouts of talking in circles instead of getting problems solved.

As a specific example, if you didn’t know that the column of links or buttons down the left side of your course site was called the Course Menu, it’s quite unlikely that you would be able to quickly figure out that the Manage Course Menu controls are the place to go to manipulate that sidebar.  Similarly, if you didn’t already know that the student My Grades list is considered a Course Tool, you could take quite a while to figure out that you need to add a Tool Link to the Course Menu, of the My Grades type, to allow the sidebar to contain a link directly to the list of a student’s grades.

If you’re the self-starter type of instructor, and want to just jump right into trying something new in your Blackboard course, keep this in mind.  My suggestion: spend a few minutes talking over what you want to accomplish with a support tech, and they can likely point you to the right proper names and keywords (as well as the occasional but inevitable “gotchas”) that will make your journey into the unknown wilds of Blackboard much smoother.


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